Ukraine needed a big home win to have any confidence of overcoming France and making it to Brazil next summer. They got it. A pedestrian French display was countered by an excellent defensive showing from the hosts, and after holding Les Bleus' halfhearted efforts off for more than an hour, Ukraine hit them with a pair of goals in the second half to give themselves a big edge heading into the second leg.
The first half was disappointing. Ukraine identified Franck Ribery as their guests' main attacking threat and did their best to nullify him using two (sometimes three) defenders to block off the Bayern man's mazy runs. The likes of Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy weren't providing enough firepower to punch through elsewhere, and Andriy Pyatov's goal was never really threatened.
In fact, the pressure -- if there was any -- was all at the other end. Andriy Yarmolenko was giving Patrice Evra serious problems on the France left, and from that flank we got the half's only faint glimpse of a chance: Edmar cut the ball back for Yevhen Konoplyanka unmarked on the penalty spot. Mathieu Debuchy deflected the shot wide for a corner.
That was as exciting as it got in the first half. Fortunately, the second had more action. France began piling on the pressure, but once again it was the hosts who created the better chance. This time, however, they made it count. Edmar was the creator once more, but Roman Zozulya did the hard work, shrugging off a trio of defenders and then poking goalward. Lloris got a touch, but couldn't prevent the ball trickling over the line.
The goal inspired France to push forward in earnest, and they should have equalized almost immediately when Samir Nasri shot straight at Pyatov when through on goal. But they could have gone further behind when Eric Abidal and Konoplyanka got tangled in the box -- fortunately for the visitors referee Cuneyt Cakir waved off protests and denied Ukraine the penalty their fans were baying for.
Their luck soon ran out.
Laurent Koscielny had just missed a huge chance at one end of the pitch, directing a header well wide after Pyatov had foolishly vacated his net, and he then compounded French misery by bringing down Zozulya in the box. This time the Cakir pointed straight to the spot, and Yarmolenko blasted the ball into the roof of the net to make it 2-0, Ukraine.
Patrice Evra was soon demanding a penalty of his own after tumbling in Pyatov's box during a freekick, but France weren't going to get their away goal that easily. But an away goal would still have changed the entire tenor of the match, and the visitors stormed forward in hopes of notching one. Their late charge, however, was derailed by a moment of madness from Koscielny, who made a miserable night even worse by striking Olexandr Kucher and receiving a deserved straight red card in stoppage time -- Kucher then got his marching orders after incurring a second yellow card for a foul on Ribery.
It was a crazy end to a contentious game, but when the dust settled, it remained 2-0 Ukraine. France have their work cut out for them in Paris.
Ukraine starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Andriy Pyatov; Artem Fedetskyi, Yevken Khacheridi, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Vyacheslav Shevchuk; Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Ruslan Rotan; Andriy Yarmolenko, Edmar Halovskyi (Roman Bezus 77'), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Oleh Gusev 90'); Roman Zozulya (Yevhen Seleznyov 86').
Goals: Zozulya 61', Yarmolenko 82'.
France starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris; Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, Eric Abidal, Patrice Evra; Blaise matuidi, Paul Pogba; Loic Remy (Moussa Sissokho 66'), Samir Nasri (Mathieu Valbuena 80'), Franck Ribery; Olivier Giroud (Karim Benzema 70').